An odd foreigner’s moved into the crumbling abbey up the hill. The newspapers are reporting awfully strange stories. Young Dr. Seward has watched, helpless, while his beloved fiancée has wasted away before his own eyes. His best friend Jonathan Harker’s gone missing abroad. And his other patients, already suffering from mental illnesses, are getting … restless. Time to call in his old friend Van Helsing, whose obsession with the occult might shed some light on Seward’s ever-darkening days.
“Dracula” opened Sept. 12 at Actors Theatre of Louisville and runs through Halloween in the Bingham Theatre. The story is William McNulty’s own compact, muscular version of John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Victorian horror novel. Under McNulty’s direction, the production is swiftly-paced but emotionally sound, and while it contains few surprises for returning audiences, “Dracula” is a time-honored Louisville tradition that has signaled the beginning of long nights for 19 years and counting for good reason.
The production wisely retains the amped-up combat scenes fight choreographer Drew Fracher added last year, which add a dash of exciting action to the largely-mental game (punctuated every so often with a spurt of blood, of course) that Dracula plays with his victims. Designers Ben Marcum (sound), Tony Penna (lights), Lorraine Venberg (costumes) and Philip Allgeier (video) create a chilling atmosphere around Paul Owen’s appropriately-gloomy set. Small gross-out touches (splattering blood, live rats) and big special-effect gestures like pyrotechnics continue to frighten and delight the vocal front row patrons.
Most of last year’s stalwart cast of “Dracula” veterans returns, including Randolf Curtis Rand as the sinister Count, McNulty as his rival Van Helsing, and former acting apprentices Marc Bovino (the perennial favorite as bug-crazy Renfield), Joe Curnutte (a tortured Dr. Seward) and Alexander V. Thompson (the orderly Mr. Briggs).
Ann Sonneville joins the cast for the first time as the plucky Lucy, Dracula’s next intended victim, and current acting apprentices Ali Burch (a Walden Theatre grad, too) and Max Monnig round out the speaking roles as Seward’s assistant Ms. Sullivan and Lucy’s fiancé Jonathan Harker, respectively. A host of apprentices and children, all gored up, portray the “Undead Ensemble,” a ghoulish crew in various stages of monstrous transfiguration.
If the cast played more lines for laughs this year than last, that choice is balanced by a pronounced attention to Dr. Seward’s growing despair as he begins to understand the power of the evil force overtaking his home and loved ones. Curnutte reveals Seward’s understanding gradually, but when he’s finally forced to face the horror, it steels his will to fight, but it also breaks something inside of him, and his choice in the final battle makes tragic sense.
Seasonal rituals like “Dracula” help us mark the cycle of the year, but they also offer recurring opportunities for reflection on the season’s themes. The battle with external evil bookends tidily with the internal struggles of “A Christmas Carol,” another annual tradition that will be upon us before we know it. As we enter into the sensual pleasures of fall that will soon give way to the severity of winter, we can experience “Dracula” as a triumph of good over evil, and so, in an odd way, a meditation on hope—that no matter how dark the nights become, we can still fight on the side of the light.